Bruce Holland Rogers
Us dealers, we had nicknames for many of the casino’s regulars, but not nicknames we used to their faces. Mrs. Dyson, who always wore about a pound of rhinestones, was Mrs. DeBeers. Mr. McIlvoy, the fat guy, we called Hamburger, as in Big Mac. Mr. Lee was Super-Split because he split whenever he had two of the same cards, whether or not it was a good play. Not every regular had a nickname. We didn’t have one for Mr. Sundberg, who played smart and was a good tipper.
Then there was Pauly Bolinger, Creamsicle, who always wore a pale orange sports coat and a white shirt. You could count on Pauly to come in once a month with a big stake. You could count on him to start out playing smart, never splitting his cards on tens, always doubling his bet on eleven. And he’d keep playing smart if he got ahead, so that on some rare nights he’d go home having tripled his stake. More often, though, his play would become impulsive as soon as he had a run of losses. Then you could count on him to do stupid things like split tens with the dealer showing eight, counting on luck to bring him nines or tens. Which it usually didn’t, of course.
I didn’t like Creamsicle. He didn’t tip. On nights when he lost everything but his cab fare home he’d cry and tell me how he lived in a trailer at the edge of the desert. When things like that happened, it was my job to stand at my station and say, “Better luck next time, Mr. Bolinger.” For regulars at the high stakes tables, if they weren’t staying in our hotel, we could offer them a limo ride home. But Creamsicle wasn’t enough of a high roller for that. He played the five-dollar table. So I’d have to stay at my station, keep dealing to the other players, and endure his tears until the pit boss noticed and had him escorted. Gently, of course, so as not to offend him, but firmly, so that other players at the table wouldn’t feel too bad or think too much and change their minds about what they were doing with their money.
I liked it best when Creamsicle won, even though he didn’t tip. Tears at the blackjack table, they’re no fun for anybody.
My last night on the floor of the casino, Creamsicle came in late in my shift and joined two other players at my table. He played even for a while, up a couple hundred dollars, down a couple. He was down and had lost several hands in a row when I dealt him a four and a six. Ten. The house’s hand showed a five. The smart thing to do in that situation is to double your bet. That’s what Creamsicle did. It was the right play, but it didn’t work out. He lost. I couldn’t have told you that this particular disappointment would be his turning point, but his pile of chips was shrinking, so he was headed for one of his bad nights. Sure enough, after that hand he played with more hope than strategy. He started to make bigger bets, more reckless bets. He lost faster.
On his last bet of fifty dollars—it should have been his last bet—I dealt him a pair of eights. The house showed a six.
I waited. The player to his left said, “What’s it going to be?”
Creamsicle rubbed his forehead. He wanted to split those eights, which ordinarily would have been the smartest bet. But it would mean putting another fifty dollars on the table. I knew that the only money he had left would be the fifty he kept in his breast pocket for cab fare. The one thing Creamsicle had going for him, the only thing I liked about him, was that he never would bet his ride home.
He didn’t split the eights. He stood on sixteen, and under the circumstances, it was the right thing to do, or at least the thing I wanted him to do. I didn’t want to see him bet his cab fare. But I dealt the house seventeen. He lost.
He put both hands on the felt. “Fuck me,” he said. He stood up.
Neither of the other players looked at him. His eyes were red-rimmed and turning watery.
I said, “Better luck next time, Mr. Bolinger.”
“Fuck that.” He took the fifty out of his orange breast pocket and put it on the table.
I looked at him. I looked at the pit boss, whose attention was elsewhere for the moment. I looked at Pauly Bolinger. Pick it up, I was thinking. Pick it up, and put it back in your pocket.
He didn’t meet my gaze. I did my job. I slotted the bill and gave him his chips. He pushed them forward and proceeded to hit on twelve. The house showed ten, so he was at least playing smart, even if I thought he shouldn't be playing at all. He drew a ten card. Twenty-two. Busted.
He pushed his chair back in a fury. “I’m an idiot!”
The pit boss was looking our way, reaching into his pocket to transmit a signal.
“Take it easy, Mr. Bolinger,” I said.
“Right,” he said. “Take it easy. Better luck next time.” He made fists. “Why do I do this?”
The pit boss came around behind Pauly, and across the floor I could see a broad-shouldered Dark Suit starting our way.
Pauly slapped the table. “Fuck me!”
Players around the room were looking at him, except for the two players at my table. They were looking anywhere but at Pauly. The pit boss put his hand on Pauly’s shoulder.
I stepped back a little from my table and showed my empty hands to the boss and to the security cameras. I reached into my breast pocket. I wasn’t supposed to do that. Once tips went in, they weren’t supposed to come out again while the dealer was at the table. I found two twenty-five dollar chips. I rapped them on the table, then pushed them at Pauly.
“What’s this?” He blinked. I could see his anger finding a new target. “I don’t want your—”
“It’s a stake.”
The pit boss gave me a dark look.
“I’m staking you one hand,” I said to Pauly. “You win, you go home.”
“You can’t do that,” said the pit boss. “You can’t have a stake in a game you’re dealing.”
“Right,” I said. “It’s a gift then. Play it or cash it, Mr. Bolinger.”
“And if I lose?” said Pauly.
“I don’t owe you?”
“I said it’s a gift.”
The boss frowned at me, and I could see that he didn’t like this but couldn’t quite decide whether to shut down my table right then. He probably should have. But what he did was take his hand off of Pauly’s shoulder and let him sit down. The other two players were watching me, like this was the most interesting thing that had happened all night. I gestured to the Dark Suit, waving him off. He kept coming toward us, but at an easier pace.
To the other two players, I said, “Place your bets.”
In that hand, Pauly stood on seventeen with a dealer six showing. Good. The house busted with twenty-four.
I paid Pauly’s bet. He slid me fifty in chips—the first time he ever tipped me, and it was with my own money. I rapped the chips on the table, showed them to Dark Suit and the pit boss since they were right there, and put them in my pocket. “Good night, Mr. Bolinger,” I said.
He nodded. He stood up, straightened his lapels, and left.
“Your shift’s over,” the pit boss said, and he told the remaining players that my table was closed. His cell phone rang. Before he answered it, he said, “I bet someone upstairs wants a word with you.”
I had been in Mr. Janes’s office only once before, when I was hired. Mr. Janes watched me come in without saying a word. He gestured with one hand for me to sit down. The other hand held an unlit cigar.
“Want to tell me what was that about?” said Mr. Janes. “You couldn’t stand to see the Creamsicle melt?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“I think you do know. I sure as hell think I know.”
He pointed at me. “Your tips don’t come out of your pocket while you’re at your table.”
“I know, sir.”
“I could fire you for that.”
“Yes, Mr. Janes. I know.”
“You know. You know.” He put the cigar down and folded his hands. “Well, I’m not going to fire you for that. You’re an arrogant motherfucker, aren’t you?”
“You want to keep your job?”
“Good. Otherwise there would be no satisfaction in firing your ass.” He squinted at me. “I’ve been in the business for thirty years. Thirty fucking years. Do you think it’s easy? Do you think I just count my money and sleep like a baby? Guys like Creamsicle, I see them every day. Do you think I never once asked myself what the fuck I was doing?”
I just looked at him, and he looked back at me. “I’m not sure I know what you’re saying.”
“You’re fired,” he said, “and don’t think for a minute that I feel sorry for you, because I most certainly do not. Guys like Creamsicle I have to look at every day, but with a guy like you, I have a choice.”
So I was fired. So what? I could have been dealing blackjack someplace else in a week, no problem. And some days I miss the money. Nobody ever tips me two hundred dollars for bringing their salad and sirloin. I do miss that part. The money was great, and I was used to guys like Creamsicle. I had learned to take it, even if I did cave a little that one time. But inside every Casino, there’s a Mr. Janes. Inside every casino, there's a guy with plenty of time to think about the business he's in, but he's got a good life. So he's careful. He doesn't put anything but money on the table. That's the part I couldn't live with any more.
Bruce Holland Rogers is an American writer living temporarily in London, England. His stories have won two Nebula Awards, two World Fantasy Awards, the Stoker, and a Pushcart Prize, and have also been translated into two dozen languages. More of his stories, and a description of his story subscription service, are at http://www.shortshortshort.com. His recent books include Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer, The Keyhole Opera, and Thirteen Ways to Water.
Photo Courtesy of Dreamstime.
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Fiction Copyright © 2007 Bruce Holland Rogers. All rights reserved.